Podcast: Ann Armbrecht on Inspiring Sustainable and Ethical Sourcing of Herbs and Botanicals

Podcast: Ann Armbrecht on Inspiring Sustainable and Ethical Sourcing of Herbs and Botanicals

Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program offers guidance and tools to collaborate and build more responsible and resilient value networks.

By Sean Moloughney, Editor04.10.23

Sustainability is a broad term that gets tossed around a lot these days in different contexts, to the point where it's not always clear what it means. A report released this year from Nielsen IQ and McKinsey showed that consumers are shifting their spending toward products with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) related claims.

To better understand how sustainability relates to the herb and botanical value chain, I recently talked with Ann Armbrecht, the Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, which operates under the auspices of the American Botanical Council. The program recently updated its sustainability and regenerative practices toolkit, which is an expansive collection of resources that can help companies implement ecologically and socially responsible practices.

Armbrecht is an anthropologist, an herbalist, and an author whose books include The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry, which raises questions about the ethical and ecological issues of mass production of medicines derived from plants, many of which are imperiled in the wild. She is also co-producer of the documentary Numen: The Healing Power of Plants and the author of the award-winning ethnographic memoir Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home.

In connection with the toolkit, Armbrecht talked about quality, waste, regenerative agriculture, and collaborations within industry that are designed to meet common goals. As the Nielsen IQ and McKinsey report noted, the sheer size of the CPG sector, which includes the $60 billion dietary supplement industry, makes it a critical component in efforts to build a more sustainable and inclusive economy.

Resources & Links:

Sustainable Herbs Program

Sustainability and Regenerative Practices Toolkit

The Business of Botanicals by Ann Armbrecht

American Botanical Council


The transcript below was edited for clarity and brevity.

NW: For background and context, could you tell us about how the Sustainable Herbs Program developed, what your mission has been, and the key issues you're focused on?

Armbrecht: I'm an anthropologist by training and then studied herbal medicine, and have had no experience in industry. It started really because I wanted to tell the stories of the people and places behind finished herbal products. I wanted to know whether knowing those stories might make more ethical choices in the grocery store—pay not just attention to the price, but also to the impact of that choice. So it was really a consumer-directed project initially.

I created this multimedia website that included video stories of where the plants were from and some of the stories of people whom I got to know. I quickly realized that to make change it really needed to happen in the companies that were sourcing not pounds or kilos of herbs, but tons and container loads.

Around that time I was looking for a home for the program because I didn't want to create a new organization. So Mark Blumenthal and I talked about having it become a program at the American Botanical Council. When it became a program there the mission stayed the same really, to raise awareness and inspire more action around the responsible and ethical sourcing of herbs, more broadly around sustainability in the botanical industry.

My interest has always really been on the sourcing side. Now, really working with companies to have those conversations beyond just talking about the need for sustainability, but really, what does that mean? What action needs to be taken? How do we get there?

NW: To that end SHP developed a sustainability and regenerative practices toolkit, which is a collection of resources to help people understand and implement ecologically and socially responsible practices in the botanical industry. Can you elaborate on what's in this toolkit and, and who it's intended for?

Armbrecht: To back up just a teeny bit, when I think about how to bring about change, there are three areas that I focus on or think about. One is really seeing the system. To change the system you need to see it. So part of that work is around producing video stories that are on the website. It's around the book that I wrote that follows herbs through the supply chain to the source to see the industry from the perspective of all the different players from the field—collectors and farmers to the finished product manufacturers—not just from my own perspective. So the first part is seeing the system.

Then the second is tools to make change. I'll talk about that because that's the toolkit.


Then the third is collaboration. Because these issues are so challenging, we need to come together, and I'd love to talk about that a little bit too.

For now, the toolkit. Early on when I thought about the work I wanted to do in the herb community, it was really to bring about the same kind of grassroots movement in herbalism that the food movement has inspired around food, and I didn't see that same awareness happening. This real concern about where herbs are from, where the herbs and dietary supplements are from, how they're handled, and the impacts of that on the people and the earth.

So the food movement was in my consciousness. There are so many resources available around where food is from and how to bring about change; that inspired me to bring together resources that I would come across in my own work. So it was kind of a way to gather all that information into one place so I wouldn't lose it.

My idea and vision is that it's used—I've taught college classes before, so it's kind of as a college class, but in the form of a team at a company meets once a month, picks a section of the toolkit, there's information about, watch this video, here are some discussion questions, and then here are further resources to dive in and explore those.

Then there are ways an individual person can use it just as a resource guide when they're asking specific questions around, say, wild harvesting and sourcing. Here's a bunch of information in one place to get access to that information.

NW: Yeah, there's lots of links in it that extend to other resources and case studies. So there's a lot to review. There's certainly a lot available for companies throughout the structure of a company. There’s something for everybody in there.

Armbrecht: One thing that we're going to try out is to have a monthly skill-share session for sustainable herbs program members that's on a specific topic where people new to it can learn from others. Say tracing herbs to the source, or how you do a risk assessment for a particular region. There is some in-person training to see if there's an interest to bring this content alive. There's so much content online, so many toolkits, so many resources, and that's only useful to the extent that it's used.

NW: You also have a series of webinars that people can attend for more in-depth review of specific areas of the toolkit, right?

Armbrecht: We came out with version one of this a couple years ago, right before Covid hit, and then as part of the rollout for that, we thought, oh, let's just try and do these webinars.

Everybody suddenly was on Zoom, and so there was an astonishingly large attendance for those. It was really surprising and a lot of interest. I paused them right now, this month, but otherwise we've been going for 2 years and there seems a real interest in learning from those who are thinking about these issues in a conversational setting. They're not presentation format, just to change that up a little bit.

Partly why we shared an update is that I included the links to those webinars in the different sections of the toolkit.


NW: Are there other substantive updates in the second edition that we should know about?

Armbrecht: That's the biggest, substantive one through the whole thing. Then there's minor updating of the sections and the resources. I had an assistant—she started as an intern and then I hired her—who helped design these great infographics that I love. Those are in there to help make it a little more visually (appealing)—not just photos.

And then the design is different. I wanted to try and make it be something that was a little easier to read online, which is how people will be working with it.

NW: I wanted to talk a little bit about what's at stake here, in terms of climate change and the impacts on the botanical industry, growers, and throughout the value chain. What effects are climate change and biodiversity loss currently having on the herb and botanical value chain? And who's most vulnerable?

Armbrecht: I think everywhere is impacted. Matt Dybala, who's the farm manager at Herb Pharm was on a farmer panel and he was talking about how the smoke and the haze from fires in Oregon are impacting photosynthesis, which impacts the growth and the yields of their crop, which means they need to think about planting sooner if they want to get the same yield. So that's one impact. Another is the added rains are creating more fungal growth on the plants.

During the smoke when it's so bad, farm workers have to wear masks, and it's like a hundred degrees out there. So there's harder conditions. So I give that as this tiny example of the many different ramifications. And those are discomfort or profit-impacts. Those aren't life and death, and there are life and death impacts happening as well.

I was just looking at the recent IPCC report that came out with a synthesis update, and it's another one of those reports that says things are really dire, but there's still hope if we act right now. And then it seems we all kind of sit there and wait until another report comes out.

Almost half of the world's population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. And those are in more tropical regions where a lot of the botanicals come from that are the recipients of the negative causes of climate change, and rarely the actors causing it.

Last year, Jane Franch, who used to work at Numi Tea, talked about a report she saw on the impacts of climate change on the tea growing areas in Assam, where they've sourced most of their tea. And she said in—I forget in how many years—tea could no longer be grown there because of the impacts of climate change.

She said not only is the long-term viability of our company at risk, but the long-term livelihood and viability of these people whom she'd come to know was at risk. And so there's that in the longer term.

Then, everywhere where you go, the farmers talk about rains coming late or early, or not the same amount, more or less. Josef Brinckmann said a while ago in an interview when we were filming him, he said people who question climate change, you just need to get out more. Talk to farmers.

NW: I want to get into the steps that industry can take to increase resilience. The toolkit covers several issues. I want to highlight a few: quality, waste, and regenerative agriculture. Can you discuss quality and what that means in the context of sustainability?

Armbrecht: Sure. Maybe it starts with a definition of quality, right? Quality has tended to be something that's in the lab, where you measure the quality of the end product and whether it meets specifications of my company.


What I think is unique about herbal medicine is that the quality of that sample is directly connected to how that raw material has been handled from the field, from the wild harvesting or farming field, all the way to that sample.

So that broader definition of quality where a lot of other factors are taken into account. It's the quality of the soil. What's in the soil? Is it near a manufacturing plant? What's the quality of the air? Is it a polluted river that's irrigating it? Even in an organic field, how those kinds of ecological impacts, biodiversity, all of those as well as the quality of the workers' experience.

Herbalists talk about the importance of intention, which is kind of my intention as a practitioner. I came into this thinking, I wanted to see how that showed up in global supply networks. And I found out that was a really naive question of course in global supply chains, but it's not necessarily intention, it's attention.

If people are paying attention when they're harvesting, weeding out all the weeds; or when a person receives wild harvested sacks at a collection unit that they're making sure there's not other species mixed in—that it's dry and collected correctly. That attention impacts the quality.

What helps all of us pay attention better? Being cared for. Getting a decent salary. But not only that, being respected, being listened to. Just basic, common, human things that aren't about supply chains, but that are about being people. That to me, those are aspects of quality. That shows up in things like contracts; making sure I have a buyer for my turmeric that I've harvested.

Tony Booker in the UK, we had a webinar with him, and he talked about his research, which shows directly the impact that they've measured. They’ve done chemical studies to measure the constituents in turmeric that was purchased through contracts, a producer group that had a contract with the farmers. So those farmers harvested and sold it on time versus turmeric that was bought and sold in the open market.

And there was a difference. And that's because the turmeric bought and sold on the open market was stored. They kept it in poor storage facilities until the price went up again. So these things at a broader view impact quality.

NW: There's a significant amount of waste in the botanical industry, in processing and whatnot. How are responsible companies evaluating waste streams or managing waste in their processing?

Armbrecht: The main way ethical companies are dealing with it is in the raw material. Making sure what they get meets their specifications so they don't have to reject it. And so that's investing in the supply network all the way from the beginning, which goes back to those points about quality.

Seeing that it's not just an extra sustainability step, it's ensuring that they get what they need and they don't have to reject it. That has an impact also in manufacturing facilities. So often a brand has a contract manufacturer. It's to the benefit of that contract manufacturer to have less material go through that then has to be wasted, because that costs money.

But nobody's documenting how much it costs. Actually, the Sustainable Herbs Program, the advisory group, we talked about possibly trying to document that, but it was just too big of a project to figure out how you even begin to measure that—the value of that waste—to try and inspire companies to take some more action.


A few years ago we visited Indena in Italy. Solvents is another topic nobody really wants to talk about in the dietary supplement industry.

Indena was focusing on using the best solvents for extracting and then reusing them as much as they could—within all the quality control ways that you need to manage something like that—as a way of minimizing that waste. I'm sure a lot of companies do some aspect of that because of the cost of solvents.

We have one case study which was partnering with a dye company to use the waste from saw palmetto to dye clothing. And I know Brian Zapp and Applied Food Sciences were looking at a possible use of cascara bark from the coffee.

Finding multiple uses for a single product—to go back to your question about finding resilience—that's a way to support the farmers, because if they have two products instead of one, that just builds a little more resilience into their supply.

NW: How do you see the progression of the regenerative agriculture movement and where this practice is heading? And from a definition standpoint, how does regenerative agriculture differ from organic?

Armbrecht: We have a 20 minute video we just launched that's really diving more into regenerative farming of some farms that we visited in Costa Rica, and that can explain it more authoritatively, with those people who really understand the soil microbiome. I can only repeat what they've said.

In my experience in the herbal industry, wild harvested versus cultivated was often discussed, and there wasn't a lot of talk about how the cultivation happened. What the focus on regenerative has brought more attention to is that it really matters. The soil health really matters and how monocrop or mixed cropping, all those things really impact the quality of the environment in which the crops are grown.

So I think that's really important, that it's brought that conversation forward. I think like anything, there's a big risk of the word being watered-down and what does that really mean?

Herb Pharm and Gaia Herbs have become Regenerative Organic Certified, which is a very rigorous certification. Regenerative is going back to the farming practices and the whole ecosystem approach that organic really started with; it incorporates fairness and equity into that as a certification.

What the organic certification doesn't include, although I think it was the original intent of organic farmers, is equity and care and wellness for humans and the ecosystem.

NW: I was going to next ask you, how concerned you are about greenwashing and companies trying to capitalize on claims that may resonate with consumers, but not actually have any backing behind it.

Armbrecht: I was talking to someone at Expo West, an ingredient supplier, and they were talking about how everywhere you went you see sustainable, sustainable, sustainable.

And very few of their buyers ask them any questions about their sourcing practices. They just ask the price. So I think there's a real risk of that, and that requires being educated. So back to that first point I was making about seeing the system, consumers need to ask better questions, listen harder.

I've done these mini research-projects. Trying to look for information on black cohosh, I'll email all these companies asking where their black cohosh is from, and 90% of them would say, oh, it's cultivated. Well, 97% of the black cohosh is wild harvested. And so then I would ask more questions, and then finally they would stop responding.

The more we as buyers of these products know what questions to ask. Like what does it really mean to be regenerative? What do you mean when you're saying that?


Can you give me an example? And that takes work. And my next goal is to create a much smaller but sort of similar consumer-directed toolkit guide to the questions to ask to be able to filter through that green washing.

NW: Yeah, that could be a challenge for consumers right now. There was a Nielsen IQ and McKinsey report recently about sustainability claims. It seemed clear that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that make these environmental, social, governance claims.

But really understanding what that means, making the consumer responsible for deciphering what's legitimate and what's not, it seems a little unfair to the consumer, I think. I agree that maybe industry needs to be more clear about what we're talking about, what these claims mean, and have backing behind them.

Armbrecht: Going back to the point that the long-term viability of any company that depends on plant material from around the world has to be investing in the soil health, in farmer equity, wild-collector care, or there's not going to be farmers to do the work. Or there's not going to be wild collectors, or there's not going to be plants that their business depends on.

NW: Have you noticed an uptick in the number of mission-driven companies and B Corp Certified companies?

Armbrecht: To the third point that I was saying, collaboration, that's really what I've been focusing on, is collaboration among companies. It's a really strong group, and to me it feels like a small group. It feels like there should be a lot more companies in there. There's a lot of food companies, but there’s a lot of bigger herb companies and dietary supplement companies especially who can be doing more.

NW: As an anthropologist, how do you reflect on our relationship, humanity's relationship, with nature—particularly in light of climate change and all the challenges that we face.

Armbrecht: That's a big question.

NW: I know it's very broad. It’s a huge question. And you could write another book about that, I'm sure. Maybe going back in time a bit, you've spent time around the world with different communities. Especially in the botanical industry, we are extracting something beneficial to us from the earth. And yes, we put back in, in terms of regenerative agriculture—at least some companies do, ethical companies do, and many more should—but then there's this other component where we've really forgotten that this is the planet we live on and that we need to take care of it.

I wonder how you see that dichotomy, that split, and how it makes you feel. I mean, do you get discouraged about the path we're on? Are you hopeful we can course correct?

Armbrecht: Yeah. So to me, I think what drew me to herbalism in the beginning—herbal medicine that I studied with Rosemary Gladstar—is this relationship with the plants, and by extension the earth, that's not transactional. It's reciprocal. It's one of respect. It's one of the intrinsic value of the plant and the earth, not just a resource for my use.

So I feel like that's at the heart of anything when we're working with plants. My interest in the herbal industry is because I see that potential at the heart of this industry that's developed around this relationship with plants. Could that offer a pathway to right relationship with the earth? I don't know, the jury's still out on that.

Of companies that are collaborating at the Sustainable Herbs Program learning lab—there's about 20-25—we begin with that aliveness of the plants and someone calls in the plants, and then it's talking about the challenges of sourcing in very pragmatic, concrete terms.

But we're trying to start from this different, non-transactional relationship, non-extractive relationship. So that gives me hope, because I think we're drawn to that and it's shifting how people are working. And then in my personal life, I am drawn to circles where people talk about that.

But there's plenty of other circles where people have a totally extractive, exploitative relationship. Is that a turning point? I don't know.

I went back to Nepal for the first time—I lived there for about four years in the 80s and 90s—and I went back for the first time in November. It’s heartbreaking—the scale of change; it's a scale of change in many parts of the world. But to see that, to have left and then come back, I was just left wondering what can make a difference. It's population growth, urban sprawl, climate change, degradation of the earth, people shifting from rural areas to cities—that makes me feel overwhelmed.

And I'm a mother and I have kids, and so I have to have hope and I get up, and I stay focused, and find the circles where people are doing the best they can.

When we were in Nepal there was this collaboration between Pukka Tea and East-West Tea that was facilitated by Martin Bauer. It was the first supplier visit any of them had done with competitors, and/or that Martin Bauer had done with two of their buyers. And they said, it's because the urgency of the problems in the world are more important than the little smallness of corporate competition. The more that companies step out of the box and come together, I think the more hope we can all have.

NW: How else can companies come together toward these common goals and put differences and competition aside.

Armbrecht: Out of that webinar I mentioned that Jane Franch had done, around the work Numi had done—measuring their Scope 3 emissions for specific species, which is an enormous task for any company, because it's not like they just have coffee or cacao, there's a whole bunch of species from around the world.

So this group, there are eight companies, they're all brands, and they all need to begin tracking or continue tracking their Scope 3 emissions of particular species. But it would be enormously expensive and time-consuming for each company to do a lifecycle analysis of chamomile. So they're coming together and put together this request that they're going to approach different consulting groups that are helping to provide companies with that kind of emissions data.

But they're saying, work with us as a group, not as individual companies, because we don't want to spend all our resources investing in this, and we don't want to take that much time because the point is to address the information now. So I think that's a pretty interesting example of collaboration.

NW: Now, you said you're a mom. What's the best parenting advice you've been given? I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. Can you give me some tips?

Armbrecht: That’s the hardest question you've asked so far. Because I want to be really wise ...

When I was just worrying so much about my daughter, she was 13 at the time when flip phones were coming out. Of course everybody had a phone and she didn't have a phone; and not everybody had a phone, but that's what she told me. And I was so worried about it.

And this woman I respect a lot said, stand in who I am as a person, and in-allegiance with who my daughter is; and that's what matters. The phone or the not phone, those things come and go, that's the culture. But what really matters is seeing her spirit in all its fullness.

I'm trying to remember that when I get overly anxious about various things.


NW: That's a good one. I like that. Ann, I really appreciate all your time and insight. Thank you.

Armbrecht: Thanks so much for the time and your attention and questions.
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